Your allergy pills will be parachuted in by autonomous drones soon
Right now in Pea Ridge, Arkansas, packages containing ibuprofen and cough medicine are parachuting to Earth.
They’re orders placed by customers of a local Walmart Neighborhood Market, delivered by drones that (literally) drop off health and wellness items. It’s the first direct-to-consumer drone delivery service for San Francisco-based Zipline in the US—and Utahns are next.
In the Beehive State, Salt Lake City-area customers of Intermountain Healthcare will be among the first to benefit from the convenience of Zipline’s on-demand, automated delivery. The project will initially focus on delivering home care products and specialty pharmaceuticals to patients who live within a 50-mile radius of a soon-to-be-built distribution center.
Zipline and IHC plan to expand operations over the next few years, eventually providing hundreds of daily deliveries to about 90 percent of patient homes in the region.
“We expect construction for our distribution center to begin in early 2022, and we’ll announce more on when we plan to deliver as we get closer to completion,” says Zipline’s General Counsel Conor French. “Apart from construction, there are several factors in getting the center operational, including regulatory approval. That being said, we’re working very closely with the [Federal Aviation Administration] and expect to launch our deliveries in the area in spring 2022.”
The art of the delivery
To imagine how it will work in Salt Lake, we can look to Pea Ridge—where the process is akin to regular grocery deliveries. Customers jump on the Zipline app to choose from hundreds of Walmart’s health and wellness products. “A Walmart associate picks and packs the order and hands it to one of our Zipline staff, who loads the aircraft, which then delivers the products directly to consumers’ homes in a precise delivery window,” French says. “The entire process, from order to delivery, can take just 30 to 45 minutes.”
So yeah, it’s just like regular delivery—except for the drone launchpad next to the store. And the diminutive plane-like unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that targets a home’s geolocation, opens its ventral flaps, and lets gravity deliver the mini parachute-bound box of over-the-counter allergy meds.
As French explains, there are no drone pilots. “Zipline operates on an industry-leading autonomy platform that flies on predetermined routes, drops packages, and returns,” he says. “These aircraft are overseen by our flight operations team. This team will be located at the distribution center in the Salt Lake City area.”
Ah yes, that’s what the A in UAV actually stands for…unmanned autonomous vehicle. Got it.
Delivering more than products—delivering hope
While Pea Ridge (just down the road from Walmart headquarters in Bentonville) may mark Zipline’s foray into B2C delivery, the company has been honing its instant logistics system in the B2B space since its first drone deliveries in Rwanda in 2016. There, otherwise significant challenges proved fertile ground for developing Zipline’s capabilities.
“Zipline was founded to address one of the world’s most pressing, difficult, and stubborn challenges: universal access to medical products,” French says. “No one had ever really set out to do what we wanted to accomplish, especially in Africa. In the beginning, nearly every public health expert that founders Keller Rinaudo and Keenan Wyrobek talked to told them the idea of Zipline was a waste of time. There was no way the tech would work, it wouldn’t be reliable enough, it wouldn’t work in Africa, and there wasn’t a market for it.”
Ultimately, French says, it was the Ministers of Health in Ghana and Rwanda—the people living the problems Zipline set out to solve—who saw the potential of the technology and took a chance on it.
“Zipline served a single hospital in the first nine months. But soon after, the clouds parted, the system began to work, and Zipline’s network included 20 Rwandan hospitals by the end of the year,” French says. “Today, we serve nearly 2,000 health facilities across Rwanda and Ghana and have saved countless lives—all because of partnership and a little belief when we needed it most.”
Since its expansion in Africa, Zipline has worked with US healthcare systems to deliver critical medical care products. During the tenuous early days of the Covid outbreak, for example, Novant Health partnered with Zipline to provide personal protective equipment from a North Carolina distribution center to one of its medical facilities about 30 miles away.
Zipline also recently announced a pilot program with Cardinal Health to use autonomous aircraft to deliver medical products and medications to pharmacies in the Kannapolis, North Carolina area.
Ahead of the curve
It’s interesting to note that Zipline is succeeding where others have failed—or at least stalled out.
After eight years in development, worldwide delivery company DHL officially canceled its Parcelcopter delivery system. As for Amazon, the company made grand PR proclamations that the e-commerce giant would have drone delivery by 2019. But Amazon is still struggling to make that a reality, recently scaling back its Prime Air initiative in the U.K.
The Amazon FAQ offers vague marketing-speak in response to the “When is drone delivery coming?” question, stating, “The only solution worth launching is one that is safe and reliable. We are actively flying and testing, and it will take time and more hard work before our operations are ready to scale.”
So why is Zipline so confident about its growth, even raising another $250 million in funding in 2021?
“We’re confident it works because it already does,” French explains. “Our track record of successfully flying more than 16 million autonomous miles over the past five years —more than any other company—is a testament to our commitment to safe operations. With Zipline, people can safely receive instant, on-demand delivery without additional pollution, noise, traffic, or collisions. We’ve made more than 236,000 commercial deliveries and have built the infrastructure and processes necessary to make instant logistics a reality. Our system currently completes a delivery about once every four minutes.”
If the future of drone delivery for medical supplies is already upon us, it’s hard not to daydream about what’s ahead for UAV delivery.
“Ultimately, we imagine a world where physical products can be moved as easily as sending a text message. And we’re a lot closer to that than people think,” French says. “The applications for instant logistics are innumerable and have profound implications for how we consume, where and how we access care, patterns of mobility, and even for climate change.”
Profound applications of UAV delivery sound great and all, but wouldn’t it be more fun if parachuting pizzas were up next?